The Essential Church
DOCUMENTARY | Grace Community Church’s two-hour film argues pandemic church shutdowns reflect a historical pattern of religious persecution
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Sometimes we forget how much uncertainty accompanied the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. Government officials and healthcare providers offered contradictory explanations for how the virus spread, why it sometimes proved fatal, and how we should protect ourselves. In the beginning, the one thing everyone seemed to agree on was we should all stay home.
Stay-at-home orders were particularly challenging for churches. At first, many congregations didn’t know how to react to the lockdowns, fearing that remaining open could spike contagion. Still, Scripture teaches not to forsake the corporate gathering. Stay-at-home orders were intended to be temporary, but as the pandemic dragged on, it seemed those orders weren’t being enforced equitably, and in some places churches became targets for unfair government enforcement.
Some Christians have come away from the pandemic hysteria with an all’s-well-that-ends-well outlook, a willingness to pardon the authorities for overstepping.
But The Essential Church, a new documentary from Grace Community Church in California, communicates a different message. The two-hour film suggests that recent church shutdowns reflect a historical pattern that Christians should not dismiss with a shrug.
Narrated by Ian Hamilton, the film begins with a story about another instance of the state’s attempt to control religion. In the 1600s, the Scottish Covenanters opposed the Book of Common Prayer, believing that King Charles I introduced the book to control worship. Stories of famous martyrs are woven into the film, reminding viewers that “stand firm in the faith” (1 Corinthians 16:13) is an age-old command.
Fast-forward to 2020. Drone footage shows empty Los Angeles highways and pans to Grace Community Church where Pastor John MacArthur has preached for 54 years. Farther north, Pastor James Coates of GraceLife Church and Pastor Tim Stephens of Fairview Baptist wait for Canada’s lockdowns to lift.
But bans on religious gatherings extended beyond what was reasonable. And in July 2020, Grace Community Church announced it would hold in-person services despite Gov. Gavin Newsom’s mandated restrictions. MacArthur and his elders prepared to face the consequences.
In August, Grace filed suit against Newsom for imposing undue restrictions on houses of worship. That case ended in a settlement. The Supreme Court later ruled in another case that religious services cannot be arbitrarily restricted.
The situation was much bleaker for Christians in Canada. Some pastors there refused to comply with stay-at-home orders. In the film, the scene in which police take one of the pastors away from his family is pretty moving.
As late as February 2022, British Columbia’s provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry still limited church attendance to 50 percent while allowing nightclubs and restaurants to return to full capacity.
The film has a PG-13 rating for some frightening moments, most of which involve accounts of the martyrs. The film includes stunning cinematography, has great pacing, and feels well researched. There’s even an interview with President Trump’s 2020 coronavirus adviser.
Not all viewers will agree with MacArthur’s determination. At the time, many evangelicals argued that complying with state regulations showed love for one’s neighbor. Andy Stanley, for instance, assured people that church attendance is nice but not necessary. The filmmakers disagree. “The real offense,” remarks one pastor, “is to remove the spiritual help and testimony that the church gathered represents.”
The documentary isn’t preachy and doesn’t dive down conspiracy rabbit holes, but instead presents the facts of the case and the gospel of Jesus Christ.
The Essential Church emphasizes the Church will prevail because Christ is Lord, but Satan will take every opportunity to attack—and that Christians shouldn’t be surprised when he attacks again.
Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Grace Community Church's case did not go before the Supreme Court.